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Black American Freemasonry

In the American Masonic world, it is not surprising (except to those who are ignorant of the ins and outs of certain sociological and historical realities) to note the coexistence of two entirely separate spheres that barely intermingle: white obediences on the one hand, and black ones on the other. Wasn’t it Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his book Democracy in America, wrote, “I see an innumerable mass of similar and equal men”?1 One could hold forth indefinitely on this subject. He continues, “. . . who go round and round without respite in order to procure for themselves small and vulgar pleasures, with which to fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn to the side, has virtually nothing to do with the fate of all the others.” As much could be said today on the subject at hand, even though a beginning of normalized relations was launched toward the end of the twentieth century. Still today, the grand lodges of nine Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) regard the black Prince Hall Grand Lodges as irregular, just as they do other black powers like the Grand Lodge Hiram Abiff, Grand Lodge Omega, or the Grand Lodge Saint John in Exile (in Haiti). The Gran Logia de Lengua Española of New York, whose membership consists of Cubans in exile, is tarred with the same brush.

In reality, the black American grand lodges have become long accustomed to the indifference, if not to say scorn, shown them by the white American obediences that have still not put an end to segregation and still look on black Americans as the former slaves who were once excluded by Anderson’s Constitutions. As Cécile Révauger writes, it is hardly surprising that black American Freemasons have a somewhat abstract vision of universal brotherhood and would be tempted by a communitarian retreat within Freemasonry, given the ostracism they have suffered in the past in America.2

A brief reminder of the genesis of black American Freemasonry would not be out of place here. Prince Hall, a slave born in Barbados between 1735 and 1748, was emancipated in 1770, one month following the famous Boston Massacre, and initiated five years later into an Irish military lodge attached to the regiment of British General Thomas Gage at the same time as fourteen other freed slaves. He later created a lodge after having obtained a patent from the Modern Grand Lodge of England on September 29, 1784. However, the regularity of his initiation would be contested by the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, which therefore gave no further sign of recognition to the first black lodge, which bore the distinctive title of African Lodge 1. The document can be currently found in the archives of the Supreme Council of the Northern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in Lexington, Massachusetts, with a copy in London at the Museum of the United Grand Lodge.

It was not until a year after Prince Hall’s death, in 1808, that the African Grand Lodge would take the name of its founder, which it still bears today. The same year, another black lodge came into existence in another state, the First Independent Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. The two obediences would not form a federation together until 1847, when at the same time they joined to this new body—the Grand Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons Prince Hall—all the lodges that had been previously lacking any relational structure and that had gradually come into being all over the United States, but particularly in the states of Pennsylvania and New York.

Today, this obedience is not experiencing any drop in interest and has thirty-six lodges in just as many states. It governs some five thousand black Masonic chapters that come to a total membership of some five hundred thousand brothers, as women are still not, in imitation of the regular white Masonic groups, admitted into the lodges. The three black grand lodges of Canada are also dependents of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Like the white grand lodges, their grand masters have implemented a committee system, and they meet once a year to coordinate their policies among each other as well as with other friendly obediences.

The ritualistic traditions of the Prince Hall symbolic lodges do not differ tangibly from those of the other American grand lodges. The same is true for the high grades administered by the two Supreme Councils of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, one for the Northern jurisdiction, established in Philadelphia in 1854, and the other, representing the South, which has had its headquarters in Washington, D.C., since 1869. The territories they cover are the same as those under the rule of the white jurisdictions.

Prince Hall also has other autonomous authorities for the whole of the side orders, such as the Knights Templar and Shriners, who take responsibility for a policy of Masonic charity comparable in all respects to that of the subordinate structure of white Freemasonry. In an American context, until the administration of former president Barack Obama the U.S. government did not provide mandatory health insurance, something that should be noted he had a great deal of trouble making the law of the land. With the new administration, the subject of health insurance and the potential repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is still an open question, given the state of the current U.S. government.

We have already seen that the same holds true concerning the initiation of women in America. Black American Freemasonry is equally restrictive in this domain, in which only the American obediences that are members of the international Center of Liaison and Information of Masonic Powers Signatories of Strasbourg Appeal (CLIPSAS) are an exception.*5

In the same way as female members of white Masons’ families, black women are granted access to para-Masonic structures such as Eastern Star, Daughters of Isis, Daughters of the Sphinx, and the Mecca Club for the wives of Shriners; Exalted Grand Court of Lady Knights for the families of Knights of the Temple; and Heroines of Jericho for the spouses of the members of Royal Arch chapters.

Moreover, there are a number of black Masonic orders that sometimes show a tendency to claim African origins and are not at all subject to the jurisdiction of the Prince Hall obedience. Reference has already been made to several of them, but they are relatively discreet and little known. They include the International Masons, the Scottish Rite of Saint John, and the Grand Lodges of Unity, Saint Andrew, King Solomon, and Mont Sinai, as well as the Grand Lodge of the Mount of Olives. Some of these names are revelatory of the major role played by religion among black Freemasons. Connections persist, moreover, with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church), as black churches traditionally accompanied the emancipation of the slaves. Nor is it rare for black Freemasons to also be preachers, something that cannot fail to astonish a French Freemason.

However, there are a small number of black American obediences that are members of CLIPSAS. They are part, along with various liberal powers (e.g., American Federation of Human Rights, George Washington Union), of a very minor trend in the United States and maintain official relations with the GODF. This particularly concerns the Grand Lodge Omega, the Grand Lodge Saint John in Exile, and the mixed Grand Lodge Hiram Abiff, whose headquarters are all in New York. The supreme councils connected to the first two obediences cited here are signatories of the Geneva Declaration of May 7, 2005, and in concurrence with the liberal jurisdiction recognize themselves in the good rules respecting absolute freedom of conscience. They take part in the international gatherings of the high Scottish grades that take place every two years.

Relations between White and Black Masons

Cécile Révauger, who is unquestionably the main French specialist on black and white Masonic relations in the United States and is a university professor in Bordeaux, has written Black Freemasonry, an important book on this subject that includes a preface by Margaret C. Jacob. In this preface, Jacob, who is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzes how racial segregation was established among the American brothers. Reading this book is essential for uncovering the inner workings of the very strange multicultural society of America, in which communities tolerate each other but their citizens never fraternize with one another. This observation clearly reflects the observation made by Tocqueville with which I opened this chapter.

As surprising as it may appear to a French Mason, the segregationist tradition of American civil society continues to weigh just as heavily on the Masonic edifice of this nation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Even though the start of formal recognition is clearly present today, and we are seeing a slow thawing at the very moment that President Barack Obama’s second term of office as America’s first black president has come to a close, we are in the presence of a status quo. We are currently seeing a timid start of rare and exceptional reciprocal visits. This is a situation that cannot help but baffle the contemporary French observer who has been long accustomed to finding it completely natural to take a seat among brothers of all colors around the columns of the temple. American Masons of both sides today still most often prefer to heed the maxim “to each his own.” The initiation of black brothers into white lodges remains the exception and not the rule.

To try to understand how Americans reached this point, it is necessary to understand that in addition to the weight of racial discrimination inherited from the days of slavery—when good and famous Masons like George Washington did not experience any qualms in this regard—the white American grand lodges have always found the recognition granted to Prince Hall by the Modern Grand Lodge of England hard to accept. It was a decision that was not without its political ulterior motives in the context of the war for American independence. The American grand lodges did not fail to view this as an intolerable encroachment on both the newborn American sovereignty and the jurisdictional territorial exclusivity on the part of the old London metropolis. This exclusivity is a principle that states that only one grand lodge can be recognized per state, and it assumed even greater importance in American eyes, as sovereignty was a concern of major proportions for the young nation.

Some enlightened Masons tried to alter this situation, first in 1899, then, more recently, after the Second World War in 1947. Both attempts were doomed to fail. The contacts established between European Masons and their Prince Hall brothers, particularly during the war years of 1939 to 1945, far from softening the positions taken by the white grand lodges, instead exacerbated their resentments and led to a hardening of the ostracism.

A more open attitude was only initiated at the end of the twentieth century and inside the United States itself, but once again it seems that it was under the effects of exogenous contacts established by the United Grand Lodge of England. Gradually, some white grand lodges have softened their positions by initiating a policy of formal recognition that has been coordinated in the framework of the Conference of the Grand Masters as well as in direct bilateral exchanges between individual grand lodges. As we saw earlier, not all the white grand lodges apply the same rules in this regard (only thirty out of fifty have recognized Prince Hall at present), and the thaw, if truly real, still remains without any noticeable effects in fraternal contacts. It will definitely take the longer time required for mind-sets to evolve, which occurs thanks to the relays of generations as well as education.

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